The Arkansas football team has won two SEC games combined in two seasons since Coach Bret Bielema surprisingly arrived from Wisconsin. So why do some "experts" think the Hogs are a threat in the West this season?
Bielema Has Program Rising
Bielema definitely has brought a Big Ten style to the SEC as his Arkansas team are just like his Wisconsin clubs were: mercilessly pound the ball down the opponents' throats. You won't see a spread offense anytime soon in Fayetteville. It's a 180-degree change from what Bobby Petrino ran at the school or what John L. Smith did in 2012 before Bielema arrived.
That style definitely didn't work in 2013 as the Razorbacks ended the season on nine-game losing streak after beating three cupcakes to open the year. And they were generally blown out in SEC games: 30-10 by Florida, 52-7 by South Carolina, 52-0 by Alabama, 35-17 by Auburn. The Razorbacks faithful already were questioning the Bielema hiring.
However, the tide started to turn in 2014. Sure, the Hogs lost by 24 at Auburn in the season opener. But they nearly upset then-No. 6 Texas A&M and really should have won before losing 35-28 in overtime. Arkansas probably should have beaten then-No. 7 Alabama as well but lost 14-13. There was only a 7-point loss at No. 1 Mississippi State and a 7-point loss at No. 17 Missouri. On the bright side, the Hogs dominated No. 17 LSU 17-0 and followed that up the next week with an even more impressive 30-0 win over No. 8 Ole Miss. The season closed with a 31-7 thumping of Texas in the Texas Bowl. I dare you to find me a better 7-6 team from 2014.
Hogs Will Ground-And-Pound
I'll say right now that if Arkansas was in the SEC East, I'd consider the Hogs second-favorites to Georgia. They probably would be the third-best team in the ACC (behind Florida State, Clemson), Big 12 (TCU and Baylor), Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan State) and Pac-12 (Oregon, USC). At least that's my opinion heading into 2015. Yet Arkansas might not even be the fourth-best team in the SEC West because it's so crazy deep. At this week's Media Days, the Razorbacks were picked to finish fourth in the West behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Ole Miss was a close fifth.
Bielema brings back 15 starters, including nine on offense. That includes fifth-year senior QB Brandon Allen, who completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,285 yards, 20 touchdowns and five picks in 2014. Bielema would take those numbers again in a heartbeat. But the clear focus of the offense is arguably the best 1-2 punch at running back in the country in Jonathan Williams (211 carries, 1,190 yards, 12 TDs) and Alex Collins (204 carries, 1,100 yards, 12 TDs). They were the only two 1,000-yard rushers on the same team last season in the FBS. Williams is +15000 to win the Heisman.
The Hogs do have a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos so you are likely to see plenty of play-action passing because opponents have to stock the box to stop those two tailbacks. That could mean a big season for tight end Hunter Henry, who had 37 catches for 513 yards and two scores last season. A whopping 26 of those catches were for first downs. The Hogs aren't going to throw downfield much as they had only 29 receptions of at least 20 yards last season, one of the worst marks in the nation. You still have to stretch the field at times.
Breaking Down Schedule
There is no reason that Arkansas shouldn't be 3-0 when it opens SEC play. The Razorbacks start the season Sept. 5 vs. UTEP as 33-point favorites. The next week they host Toledo but in Little Rock. The Hogs are -23 there. On Sept. 23, Texas Tech visits Fayetteville as a 14.5-point underdog.
Conference play opens against Texas A&M at a neutral site in Arlington with the Hogs at -3. They blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in that overtime loss to the Aggies last year also in Arlington. The first true road game is Oct. 3 at Tennessee with the Vols at -1. Then comes the toughest test: at Alabama. The Tide are -7.5. Alabama was outgained 335-227 in last year's 1-point win.
After a bye week, Arkansas hosts Auburn and somewhat surprisingly the Razorbacks are 2-point favorites. The Tigers won that opener last year 45-21 but it was 21-all at the half. On Halloween, Arkansas gets a breather against UT Martin. Then it's back to conference play: at Ole Miss (Rebels -2), at LSU (Tigers -6), vs. Mississippi State (Hogs -10) and vs. Missouri (TBA).
NCAAF Free Picks: Arkansas is +5100 to win the national title, +950 to win the SEC, +550 to win the SEC West and has a wins total of 8, with the 'over' a -125 favorite. Two things to be aware of here: Bielema is 0-7 at Arkansas in games decided by a touchdown or less and he still hasn't won a conference road game. I like this team a lot, but, man, that schedule. Hogs will go 4-0 out of conference. I think it's 4-4 in the SEC, which would push on 8. Lean 'over' until an alternate win total is posted.